The “Dark Ages” were not as dark as you might think

In my book Strongbow’s Wife, which tells the story of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the late twelfth century, I included a scene in which she meets a protegé of her husband’s cousin. He is a writer attempting to produce an epic poem in the style of the ancient Greeks. One reviewer claimed that passage was so far from the reality of life in that period that he was unable to take the book seriously. I felt duty bound to respond, in a comment beneath the review, that the gentleman concerned was a real person. His name was Hugh de Rotelande and his epic poem is called Ipomadon and can be viewed here in translation.

It appears that there is a fairly widespread view, especially in the USA, that people who inhabited Northern Europe in the period between the demise of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance were all illiterate barbarians. There was, certainly, a great deal of barbarity, but has there ever been an age when there was not? Up to, and including, the 21st century. Despite that, there were people who studied ancient literature and attempted to imitate it. Most of them were monks, or men with strong connections to the monasteries.

The only reason we know anything about the period is because some of these men left behind a written record which modern historians are able to access and interpret. The story of that Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland was first told by Giraldus, or Gerald of Wales, who accompanied the future King John on an expedition to Ireland, during which, according to Gerald, he took pleasure in humiliating the Irish nobles. Gerald wrote extensively about Ireland and his native Wales, but there were others who produced documents during the period which are available today as pipe rolls and provide the insights that later historians have used to provide us with everything we know about the period.

A close up photo of the chained books in Hereford Cathedral. Ivan/Flickr [creative commons]

There were, too, bound books. These were regarded as so valuable that they were chained to the shelves on which they were stored. Hereford Cathedral holds the largest collection of chained books and they include one that dates from around 800 AD. In the same building can be found the largest surviving medieval map of the world, or Mappa Mundi. This makes it clear that intellectuals of the period regarded Jerusalem as the centre of the world. The name of the Mediterranean Sea literally means “sea at the centre of the Earth”. So it is evident that they revered the body of knowledge that emanated from that region.

Such men traveled considerable distances; to places of learning, on pilgrimages, and with armies intent on restoring Christianity to the Holy Land. And it was not only men who made what many today would regard as epic journeys. In 1145 Eleanor of Aquitaine famously accompanied her husband, King Louis of France, on a crusade when aged only 23.

The first modern universities were founded in the late eleventh century and many more were established throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Such knowledge as we have of the period comes to us from men like the Venerable Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Without them we would not know as much as we do about the exploits of the kings and noblemen of that time.

Christian educators, like Zachary Garris, attribute this gap in understanding of medieval history to the secularization of education. My own belief is that, rather than a denial of the values of Christian education, this lack of knowledge can be traced to the denial of the values of one particular branch of Christianity, Roman Catholicism. The old religion was so reviled by the leaders of the Reformation that anyone attempting to access monastic records would have been subjected to severe punishment. The acts of destruction perpetrated by the Tudors and, later, by Cromwell’s “New Model Army”, not only left great buildings in ruins, they destroyed many of the written records that, had they survived, might well tell us much more about an important period in the development of our modern civilisation.

Knowing the extent of the destruction wrought during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the volume of material that survived, it is hard not to conclude that a large number of extremely erudite works were produced during a period erroneously regarded by some as “dark”.

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Frank is a retired Engineer from England now living in Ireland. He is trying to learn and share the lessons of history.

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